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A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a close friend with the subject line, “WE WON.” It referenced a fight we started two decades earlier on behalf of the Excalibur, the student newspaper at Toronto’s York University, where I had been the editor-in-chief.
In 1999, the university signed a deal allowing The Toronto Star to use newspaper distribution boxes on campus, and as student journalists, we were enraged. How could we compete for advertising dollars and readership against one of the most popular newspapers in the country, a Goliath to our David? In our minds the situation was unconscionable. The e-mail included two links: a story from the year we launched our fight, which quoted me, and a 2018 update, where the Star stopped supplying its papers (though only as a cost-saving measure).
The final line of the e-mail read, “Ps. Geez, Ang, you swear like a (expletive)-ing trooper.”
I cringed as I clicked the link open. I scanned the original story looking for my name.
“Our biggest concern is that as a student paper we’re going to lose our identity,” it quoted me as saying.
Twenty-three-year-old me sounded smart, I thought to myself.
And then there it was. The f-bomb. The cringe became a wince. It was hard to read.
“The Toronto Stars are all over the [expletive]-ing place.”
I’m Angela Pacienza, head of experience at The Globe and Mail. I lead a team of journalists who figure out how to present, visualize, edit and program the journalism you consume. The team handles newsletters (like this one!), alerts, the print paper, the website, photography and more.
The expletive wasn’t necessarily surprising. I swear a lot, though maybe not as much as back then.
Twenty-three-year old me was editor-in-chief of a weekly paper, carried a heavy course load and was doing her best to be a good daughter to my stressed-out single dad.
I wanted to project strength in all facets of my life. In my mind, I felt like one wrong move could cause it all to crumble down around me. It was a time when a female editor-in-chief was an anomaly, even for a student newspaper. My peers were mostly male, so I put on a shield to both fit in and hide my insecurities.
Swearing was an armour. I felt assertive. In control. Points of frustration were clearly communicated, tensions that come with managing a student organization were curtailed, anxiety was expressed without appearing weak, and proper placement of a curse word reliably earned laughs. My troubles, it seemed, could be attacked with f-bombs. And it worked.
Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You, says profanity is totally normal, even good for us. She points to various studies that show swearing during a tough task allows the person to withstand pain or pressure for longer periods of time. When I cut myself chopping veggies, I let out a curse word. Ditto when struggling to complete a set of pull-ups at the gym. And when I receive an e-mail with some bad news or get thrown a curveball at work? It’s bleep-this and bleep-that! Byrne discusses the connection between stamina, stress and swearing in this recent talk at the Royal Institution, a London-based charity organization devoted to science education.
Used thoughtfully, swearing can bring teams together. It breaks down emotional walls. Helps colleagues feel more open with each other. Conveys honesty during tense conversations. Tracey Spicer, a radio broadcaster and TV news anchor in Sydney, says it can even serve to offset gender imbalances. She argues that “swear words are weapons” when used in traditionally male-dominated spaces, and that discouraging anyone – especially women – from using them could make a group of people feel excluded.
So why did I cringe when I read my friend’s e-mail? It’s not a secret that I use foul language. I’ve left a trail of expletives all over the Internet. I obviously still swear (including during a live streamed workshop I once gave at a journalism conference). I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
The answer, perhaps, lies in how I’ve changed. As I got older, I picked up other tools to attack my problems. I learned I didn’t need swearing to convey confidence. I accumulated experience and accomplishments. I found safe spaces to express anxiety and facilitate working through tension with open dialogue.
These days I’m also more careful about my image. As a senior female leader at my organization, I’m purposeful with my language choices. I’m conscientious about my use of swear words. I know there are other tools at my disposal. I don’t just have swearing to attack my troubles.
Maybe seeing swearing in print reminds me of what it felt to be that 23-year old, to only have swearing as my armour. That does make me cringe.
But on the flip side, that e-mail allowed me to take stock of how many more tools I have in my kit, how much I’ve grown, how much more powerful I am. And that’s pretty effing amazing.
What else we’re reading:
As the manager of a large team, I was riveted by this brutally candid interview Kara Swisher did with Slate about her best and worst bosses. Swisher is currently executive editor of tech news site Recode and hosts the popular Recode Decode podcast. She’s worked as a tech journalist at a variety of places, including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Reading about how she handled domineering male bosses had me laughing – and crying. We need more raw stories about people standing up for themselves in the workplace.
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